Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Whitewater - Day 3 (Tuesday a.m.)

“No taxation without representation.” It is a phrase harking back to the days of the American Revolution. This rallying cry of the 1760’s summarizes a primary grievance of the original colonists who were expected to pay taxes without any representation in the British parliament. More than 200 years ago we won that revolution, but the core problem of economic contribution without political voice persists.

Jorge Islas of Sigma America challenges the group in Whitewater today to recall any time that they were told they didn't have to pay sales tax because they are an illegal? Or that there wouldn’t be any deductions from their paychecks because they’re illegal? "Immigrants are paying taxes" he reiterates "and they are not taking welfare or food stamps."

His frustrations remind me of another impassioned speaker at the forum in Beloit last night. A Dominican and long time resident, he agrees and he is angry. He poses a rhetorical question: “Does the American economy benefit from immigration?” hesitates, and then answers it “Absolutely they benefit, they want immigrants to come here, they just want to abuse them without giving us any rights.” One can’t help but wonder, is this taxation without representation all over again? Is there a new type of neocolonialism within our own borders?

Some of the people we meet in Whitewater seem to think so. Taxes are one of many hard hitting issues raised in our most emotional visit yet. Many tears are shed. Luz gives her testimony particularly eloquently and we lose a translator to tears of sympathy. Tomas who joins us again from Madison is close to tears this time. He trembles as he speaks and apologizes, telling us that he hoped he wouldn’t cry this time, but it is so hard to remember. “People are being mistreated,” he repeats, clearly distressed and with urgency. All three detention centers where Tomas was held facing deportation are all private - this means that they squeeze budgets by overcrowding rooms, denying medical care and providing substandard food. They get away with it because the detainees are by and large deported, never to come back, never to speak up. Carmen, Tomas’ wife, talks of her struggle from the outside to get him back and their new struggle together to help those still stuck inside detention centers. She weeps, "there are children in there, what is going to happen to those children?"

The tears keep coming. An elderly woman cries behind me and laments, “this just makes me sick.” The reporter sitting across from me is welling up. One tear manages to sneak its way out of my eye and my lip is quivering, but somehow I manage to brush the tear away without much notice.

There are so many stories to hear. Maria Morales, a traveling member of our tour, was reunited with her husband of seven years just two months ago. She is a citizen he is not. They married and they thought it would be easy. He had to go back to Mexico, he had to ask for a pardon (a pardon for what crime? she asks), he had to get letters of support to gain status as a legal residence. It took seven years. A lot happens in seven years. Children grow up, cities change, people change. In Maria’s case, she lost a daughter to cancer without her husband at her side, without the support she needed from her partner. Maria did it the legal way, but it is easy to see why so many cannot. We talk about waiting in line, but the need is immediate. “Now there is no line,” a woman informs us, “they took it away.” Seven years is too long.

The Whitewater workers stand up to talk about the raid against the backdrop of the place where it happened. The police station is adjacent to our meeting room. They confide that they were scared to talk today, here so close to the scene of the raid of the hours that followed, but go through with the testimony. Jorge reassures us that the location was deliberate. He frames the session as an opportunity to “rebuild the trust that was broken.” Luz, though visibly nervous at first, starts to speak and grows in confidence with each word. In the end she tells us, “I’m not afraid to speak out anymore because I have already lived much of my life. But it is not like that for many people.” She says she is doing it for the 12 million others. There are too many young who are still living in fear.

A former pastor nods in sympathy. He says, “I feel like America has lost its soul.” The whole of the session is despairing, but the testimony is also oddly therapeutic. People are talking and I get the sense they have wanted to talk for a long time. This dialogue is the first step.

The event is dynamic because it addresses so well the complexity and the various facets of the issue. Maria explains the impossible bureaucracy of the system and Luz pleads to be treated with dignity. Their words help to restore the humanity of a group that is often only talked about in statistics and stereotypes. Christine and Tomas command the audience to look at the roots of the problem. For Christine, it is understanding the way that trade forces people to make a choice between their home and their economic security. For Tomas, it is unburying the dark underside of the system and the profits that are to be made from treating people like animals. Profits to companies contracted by the government to build and operate these detention centers paid for by everyone’s (including the undocumented) tax dollars.

This is hard. The system is strong and many of its components deeply entrenched. Entrenched, but not impossible to adjust. People are talking and that is a first step.

~Melanie Benesh

No comments: